Rainier: Is the end in sight?
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 3:59 p.m.
Nearly nine years after a large majority of Petaluma voters directed city officials to do everything possible to make the long-delayed Rainier cross-town connector and interchange a reality, there is a reasonable likelihood that the first segment of the project could be under construction as soon as 2018.
No other local public improvement project before or since has received such a clear mandate from voters, leading the city to actively pursue the design, funding and construction of the project that had been in city plans since the mid-1960s.
In addition to relieving traffic congestion on the busy East Washington Street and Corona Road corridors, the future interchange promises a convenient alternative for east side residents to access Highway 101, while conversely helping west side residents more easily get to sports fields, the junior college, shopping and jobs east of the freeway.
Since that historic 2004 vote, and despite significant funding challenges, the city has taken incremental steps towards realizing this critically important transportation improvement goal, spending millions of dollars on design and environmental studies to ensure that the Rainier Avenue extension project’s first phase, an undercrossing, is completed when the highway is widened through Petaluma.
The project’s long-awaited environmental impact report (EIR) is now expected to be made public within the next month, and some funding has been secured for the design and construction of the undercrossing support structure that will sit beneath Highway 101.
But two more things must happen before construction can begin: 1) The Sonoma County Transportation Authority must find $90 million in federal and state transportation funds to widen Highway 101 to six lanes through town and, 2) the City of Petaluma must secure an estimated $38 million to build a roadway connecting North McDowell Boulevard with Petaluma Boulevard North.
With major interchange improvements and bridge widening projects at the north and south ends of town currently underway, it’s anticipated that funds will be found to widen the highway once those projects are completed in a few years. But that will only happen if Petaluma’s representatives -- including County Supervisor David Rabbit, State Assemblyman Marc Levine, State Senator Lois Wolk and Congressman Jared Huffman – all work together to ensure that widening Highway 101 through town becomes a funding priority. With the exception of Petaluma, the highway is now six lanes all the way through Windsor, so it’s well past time for this city’s taxpayers to enjoy the same benefits afforded their neighbors to the north.
To fund construction of the Rainier Avenue extension, the city has already earmarked much of the needed funding from the $13 million in traffic impact fees derived from Petaluma’s two newest shopping center developments. An additional $23 million is expected to come from other development and right-of-way fees. Once project costs are updated, more work will need to be done over the next few years to identify additional funding sources. The city can and must find a way to complete this project, which has been the city’s No. 1 transportation improvement goal for far too many years.
The investment is worth it, since studies have shown that the Rainier connector and interchange would provide the most efficient, cost-effective solution to relieving traffic along the heavily congested East Washington corridor.
Petaluma Valley Hospital and the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus were built where they are based on the long-planned Rainier connector and interchange. So were the Petaluma Premium Outlets shopping center, the city’s police station and, more recently, the Deer Creek Village shopping center under construction today.
As with any large public improvement project of this sort, especially one as costly as Rainier, political will is a vital component to sustain momentum. Petaluma’s elected officials have not always been in agreement on the importance of the project, even after 72 percent of voters mandated that the Rainier project be prioritized. As late as last fall’s election, at least two candidates for city council were either downplaying the project’s importance, or stating it was fiscally impossible and should be shelved. Such defeatism on the part of public representatives is deadly in terms of getting a public works project built, so it was probably a good thing that neither candidate was elected.
For now, we encourage Petaluma’s City Council members to expeditiously approve the project’s EIR and direct staff to develop a clear strategy to identify and secure the necessary funding so that the city is ready to build the Rainier undercrossing once the highway widening gets underway.
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